There was a time when Adolf Hitler spoke in Bengali. And so did Karl Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. The man who made this possible was Shantigopal Pal — the legendary jatra (Bengali folk theatre) artist who portrayed these characters from history with such conviction that the audience practically believed that the German dictator or the communist revolutionaries were speaking in front of them in Bengali. He would get into the skin of the character, wear his face with remarkably precise makeup and take on his mannerisms. It wasn’t for nothing that Pal was called ‘Jatra Samrat’ (king of jatra).
Last week, on November 5, Pal died at his home in Baranagar — miles away from the glitzy Chitpur road in north Kolkata, the city’s jatra hub. He was 86. Before Pal stepped on the stage, jatra was little more than a means of entertainment for the rural people. It would stick to stories from mythology written in simple style and relying heavily on music. But Pal had different plans for it. “For him, jatra was a medium to inform, educate as well as entertain rural masses,” says Pal’s son, Anirban.
In 1964, Pal set up his own production house, Tarun Theatre, and introduced historical figures from across the world in the productions. He introduced Hitler, Lenin and Mao to the remote corners of Bengal. But it wasn’t enough to be famous in the jatra circuit. Pal wanted to establish jatra as a recognised form of performing art rather than a ‘poor man’s theatre’.
“To get into the skin of the characters, he would read up on their lives, study their looks, diction, postures and even watch documentaries on the second World War,” says his son. Pal enacted about 40 historical characters in his lifetime. Soon, Tarun Theatre started getting calls from north Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Accolades and rewards followed. His audiences included the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, president V V Giri, former Bengal chief ministers Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Bengali actor Uttam Kumar and many others. He was also invited to the erstwhile Soviet Union for a 14-day tour and was awarded the ‘Soviet Day Nehru Award’ for his portrayal of Lenin.
But he was compelled to part ways with Tarun Theatre. He once said his associates cheated him and left him in financial despair. “He was meticulous about his acting and his performance, but lacked business sense,” says his son. In 1990, at the age of 52, Pal left the jatra stage forever with his last production Azad Hind Er Shesh Lorai, a play on Subhash Chandra Bose.
In his 30-year career, Pal took jatra from the villages of Bengal to the ‘Academy para’, or the city’s intellectual hub — Academy of Fine Arts. “He introduced new techniques in lighting, made separate entrance and exit points for performers and raised the stage for better viewing,” says Anirban. Today, most opera houses in Chitpur road follow his techniques.
In the last 20 years, Pal acted once in a while but never stepped on the jatra stage again. However, a few years ago, he set up Nandik, a small amateur theater group with novice actors and performed local stage shows. But by now age had caught up with him and his health was letting him down.
“The Jatra Samrat’s demise happened the day he left the stage in utter disgust. What was left was an old man who would recall his glorious days on stage by browsing through an album which he made with picture cutouts of the characters he played,” recalls his son, his eyes filling up.